We missed it. For all the intense scrutiny we bring to ACC basketball, the midpoint of the 2018 regular-season, a useful navigational marker in a sea of games, has come and gone.
We’re already in the waning days of watching players – mostly seniors and, at Duke, freshmen – who’ll soon depart after finishing the bulk of their college careers. Enjoy them while you can; by week’s end half the ACC schedule will be history too and talk will turn to what teams must do to make the NCAA field.
So far, this doesn’t appear to be a vintage ACC season. Except perhaps at N.C. State (13-7, 3-4 as of Monday), where competitiveness has far exceeded expectations, highlighted by a league victory over then-No. 2 Duke (17-2, 5-2). Boston College also has cause to savor this ACC season. The Eagles (13-7, 3-4) have won three league games, more than in the last two years combined and one short of the best season under coach Jim Christian, who arrived in 2014-15. Like Keatts’ club, the Eagles got a tremendous early boost from a home victory over Duke, the preseason national favorite.
BC is led by Jerome Robinson, a 6-5 junior guard from Raleigh. Robinson is the Eagles’ scoring leader for the second straight season and among the ACC’s top 3-point and free throw shooters. He and former teammate Devonte’ Graham, a point guard at Kansas and the preseason Big 12 player of the year, led Broughton High to the 2013 N.C. 4A championship game. But none of the ACC’s in-state schools took note of Robinson, rated the 76th-best shooting guard in his class according to 247 Sports – yet another reason to look skeptically at recruiting ratings, if you need one.
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Robinson, “confident in himself in a humble way”, according to Broughton coach Jeff Ferrell, “just didn’t have the physical strength that some colleges were looking for.” Overlooked by the ACC’s four North Carolina programs, the boyhood UNC fan joined a list of stellar Triangle products who prospered in other states, including Broughton’s Pete Maravich (LSU) and Graham.
Robinson’s first two years at Chestnut Hill the Eagles lost 36 of 38 ACC games and Boston College replaced Virginia Tech at the bottom of the standings, where the Hokies dwelt from 2013 through 2015. Now Christian’s club, bolstered by a strong perimeter, has been supplanted in the cellar by Pittsburgh (8-12, 0-7) and Kevin Stallings, in his second year as head coach.
The crusty Stallings, notorious for fighting to limit grad transfer Cameron Johnson’s playing options, arrived at Pitt even as Josh Pastner took over at Georgia Tech. The wisdom of both hires was strongly second-guessed. But Pastner, an upbeat sort who says “when there’s negative Nellies, I like the positive Pauls,” exceeded expectations and was voted the 2017 ACC coach of the year. This season, in what Pastner calls “year two of a major rebuild,” the Yellow Jackets are struggling.
Stallings’ team, overmatched for the second straight season, was winless in its first seven league games. The roster features nine ACC newcomers including juco transfer Kene Chukwuka, who even without basketball would be welcome by some folks’ standards because he’s from Sweden, a country adjoining Norway. No Panthers rank among the league leaders in any of the dozen most notable individual statistical categories.
Pitt just lost to Duke for the second time in 10 days in one of those let’s-get-this-over-with series the ACC continues to foist upon players and fans. Depending on the mental or physical state of a squad, such concentrated competition can be grossly unfair. BC, for instance, benefits by facing Notre Dame (13-7, 3-4) twice within 11 days in February, prior to the projected return of injured Bonzie Colson, the preseason pick as ACC player of the year.
With Colson expected to miss two months, the frontrunner for POY appears to be Marvin Bagley III, the league leader in scoring, rebounding, double-doubles and dazzling plays. Marvelous Marvin (with apologies to former N.Y. Met Marv Throneberry) could become the second freshman picked as player of the year, after Blue Devil Jahlil Okafor in 2015, when Duke won the NCAA title starting three first-year players.
This year Duke starts four freshmen, and in a wide-open national championship race stands a good chance of capturing Mike Krzyzewski’s sixth title. That’s if the coach’s exhortations about playing like men can spark the toughness and single-mindedness otherwise gained through extensive game experience.
A highly competent North Carolina squad likewise has a chance to tiptoe to championship contention, returning three key contributors -- Joel Berry II, Luke Maye and Theo Pinson -- from the ’17 NCAA title team.
Despite pundits’ pronouncements Ole Roy would never abandon an alignment stationing big men in the low post, the Tar Heels went small after consecutive road losses to Florida State (14-5, 3-4) and Virginia (18-1, 7-0) in early January. “We’re better than I thought (we would be), honestly,” says Pinson, a slender wing able to apply his considerable range of skills from a forward’s slot. “You didn’t know how quickly we would learn.” In four straight wins immediately after Williams demonstrated his adaptability, the senior with the pharaoh-like goatee averaged 11 points and eight rebounds, and recorded 19 assists and five steals versus five turnovers.
We’re accustomed to seeing the Tar Heels and Blue Devils, two of the nation’s highest scoring teams, ranked in the upper third of the league. Less celebrated is that, since 2013, the ACC leadership contingent perennially includes Virginia, this year’s early conference leader.
UVa got off to a strong start playing four of its first five league games at Charlottesville. Easing the way forward, the Cavaliers avoid home-and-home series against contenders Duke, Miami, North Carolina and Notre Dame. Similar scheduling benefited the Cavs when they finished first in 2014 and 2015.
Whether Virginia is overtaken by the rest of the pack or stays in front brings to mind Aesop’s fable about the tortoise and the hare. With its grinding defense and close-to-the-vest offense, it’s easy to see which role UVa, a model of consistency, plays in the tale said to teach that slow and steady wins the race. In Aesop’s parable the hare races far ahead, only to take a nap until too late to beat the tortoise across the finish line. ACC opponents know better than to sleep on Tony Bennett’s squad.